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Meeting the crew of STS 96: Kent Rominger


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In this story:

Family man

Erasing Discovery's dimples



ATLANTA (CNN) -- There are seven of them in all -- with six children, five spouses and ten space flights between them. Three are women, two are flutists, and two hold ingenious patents. One is a singer, and three are space rookies (one has held that status for 12 years!). Meet the crew of the next space shuttle mission (STS-96). A few weeks ago, I got a chance to briefly chat with them in Houston -- and during this week and next I will share my impressions with you.

For Commander Kent V. Rominger, 42, this ride aboard Discovery will be his fourth trip to space, but his first as the astronaut calling the shots. When it comes to flying skills, you would have to look hard to find a better stick. This Navy Commander cut his fighter-teeth flying F-14 Tomcats onto the pitching decks of aircraft carriers. He is a graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (you know, Tom Cruise's alma mater) and he has 5,000 flying hours and 685 carrier landings in his logbook.

I asked him what is harder -- landing a hot jet on a pitching carrier-deck in the middle of a dark and stormy night, or bringing the shuttle in for the ultimate dead-stick landing? While he hasn't logged such a landing yet as Pilot-in-Command, he has seen it from a rarefied vantage-point, and he is convinced the carrier approach is harder.

"I had no idea how tough a night landing on a carrier was -- especially if the weather's bad -- until I had done one," says Kent. His response after doing his first one: "Wow, this is pretty amazing."

Family man

Kent has a wife -- Mary Sue -- and a daughter who will turn 6 on May 20. (Had it not been for the hail-delay, that might have been some birthday candle her daddy lit for her!) Kent has spent a lot of time in his daughter's kindergarten classroom answering questions about space. (I spent some time in my son's kindergarten class this past fall. The two big hits: dehydrated, vacuum-packed astronaut food and, of course, a spacewalker's diaper.)

The crew of STS-96 pose for a portrait   

I asked Kent if he thinks about the risks when he kisses his wife and daughter goodbye before launch. "You know, I don't," he replied. "Maybe I should more than I do, but there's so much in the preparation in getting ready to fly and making sure I know how to do my job right that the risks that I can't control really don't phase me."

I also asked Kent about the long gap between shuttle launches. By my count, it is the longest launch drought (approaching six months) since the Challenger disaster in 1986. Some at NASA are trying to spin this missile gap as a good thing -- allowing NASA and shuttle contractor United Space Alliance a chance to take care of some ongoing issues which might fall by the wayside during a busier launch schedule.

"I wouldn't agree with that philosophy," says Kent. Thinking back to his days on carriers, he points out: "The airplane you didn't want to take at night was the one that had just come up out of the hanger that had been sitting down there for a matter of weeks because equipment is rusty. It needs to be exercised."

So do the people.

A crawler transporter moves space shuttle Discovery back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repair of damage to the external tank foam insulation caused by hail   

Erasing Discovery's dimples

I spoke with NASA's Joel Wells at the Kennedy Space Center about the hail damage on Discovery's huge external tank. The shuttle stack is now inside the huge Vehicle Assembly Building, and workers are getting their ducks -- and their scaffolding -- in order to give the tank a thorough inspection. There may be a few hundred dents in all in the insulating foam -- some of them as big as 2 inches.

They will find, mark and number each dent and then patch them -- not with the foam, but with another material, Space Bondo, I suppose. The dents are a bad thing, because even though the foam insulates, the tank gets very cold once the super cold liquid oxygen and hydrogen are pumped in prior to launch. Left alone, they could make the ET into a very elaborate ice tray. And a launch on the rocks is not a desirable cocktail. If the ice breaks away at the right speed and trajectory, it could ruin all the fun.

Anyway, if the stars are in alignment, and that means finding and patching everything with alacrity, then having perfect weather to roll the shuttle back out to Launch Pad 39-B, they could launch as early as May 27. But "as early as" is all we are going to get for now. Stay tuned.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears on Tuesdays.

City in Space

Downlinks archive

Shuttle astronauts set for very busy mission
May 13, 1999
Shuttle returns from first space station assembly mission
December 15, 1998

NASA Human Spaceflight
United Space Alliance
Kennedy Space Center
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